The autumn of 1978 was a golden one in my life.

After spending the summer studying singing in Austria, I returned to the States and to the reality that my parents had retired and were selling our home on Long Island.

The upside of this news was that the new owners, David and Elisabeth Gray, were a truly fascinating couple from the UK: Elisabeth described herself as a Yorkshire Lass, while David was pure Scots. We hit it off from the moment they first viewed the house, and, at the closing, they made it clear that I would always be sincerely welcomed to visit.  They filled their new home with two things that immediately caught my attention:  quality antique furniture and gorgeous paintings of old battle scenes in which famous Scottish regiments took part.  David proved to be an astute collector of both.

I had been fascinated by all things Scottish since first seeing and hearing a regimental pipe band at the age of 6.  My dad, a naval aviator, was stationed at the Pentagon at the time.  One fine summer evening, he took us to the Sunset Parade at the Marine Barracks in Washington, D.C. It happened that on this evening, besides the Marine drum and bugle corps, a presentation was to be given by the pipe band of a Scottish regiment. Ever since, I had been nursing a desire to learn to play the pipes and had finally begun lessons early in that busy summer of ’78. Going a giant step further, I had taken up not only the pipes, but arms as well, and had joined an American Revolutionary Re-enactment Group.  Not only was I learning to play the pipes, but I got to do so while marching and fighting, fully robed in an accurately-reproduced 18th -century uniform of the famous Scottish regiment, The 42nd – Black Watch. That I was basically a beginning piper didn’t seem to bother anyone. After all, it is difficult to determine a budding piper’s proficiency when he is surrounded by black powder muskets and standing next to a roaring cannon. (And, probably just as well.)

The author as a piper with the 42nd

So, one crisp afternoon that autumn, after a day spent musically accompanying my comrades as they “shot” colonists on the village green, I went to visit David and show off my uniform. I knew he would be tickled, as he had served in the real Black Watch during the Second World War, as had his father in the First, and his grandfather in the Boer War.

Upon arrival at the house, I decided to subtly announce my presence by stepping out of the car and playing a few of my beginner tunes on the pipes. It worked, as David and Elisabeth soon emerged from the house and listened politely. When I had finished my impromptu recital, David smiled, took the pipes from me, and proceeded to play the same set of tunes I had just played … but as they were meant to be played. 


The author as a piper with the 42nd

“Right,” he said, “That’s how that is to be done. Now, let’s have a wee dram, or two.”  I wasn’t sure exactly what a dram was, but I sensed it might have something to do with adult beverages, and my initial concern that it was only to be a wee one was mollified by the fact that he’d mentioned having two.

Well, the dram or two, of course, referred to single malt Scotch.  I told David that I was totally unfamiliar with this libation. This was 1978, after all, and the suddenly-huge popularity of single malts in America was still at least a decade away.  I explained to David that all I’d drunk at college was beer and bourbon (I went to school in the South, bless my heart.); that my only post-college experience with Scotch had been limited to a self-imposed and disgusting blend of Cutty Sark and 7-Up; and that my desire to repeat the quaffing of any form of Usquebaugh had sunk after one glass. At this point, he got the same sort of look on his face as he’d gotten earlier while politely listening to me play the pipes, only more pitying. He took me by the arm and said, gently, “Then you shall now become educated, Laddie.”

It turns out that one of the more dubiously exciting aspects of the Grays’ move from the UK to the USA had been the apparent loss of a container of their property. It was especially distressing to David because it contained his collection of Single Malt Scotch. Much to his relief, the errant container had eventually been located, and, thus, he was able to display on the dining table a range of bottles with the most romantic, yet lacking-in-vowels, names I had ever heard. Many of the labels were quite yellowed with age, and it was clear that portions of this collection had been around for a long time.

The first thing I was taught was the proper pronunciation of an equally vowel-starved word: “Slàinte!The French would translate this as “à votre sainté”to your health.  We Americans would say, “Here’s mud in your eye.” (And people say we aren’t classy!) Once I passed muster on the pronunciation, it was on to the liquid.

Perhaps jumping right into the deep end was David’s way of clearing my palate of the taste of “Sark & Seven.”  I suppose he wanted to properly baptize me (in salt water), and so the first whisky we tasted was Laphroaig.  He showed me how, using proper glasses, to gently approach the upper edge of the snifter with my nose to allow the aroma to come to me. I wish I could say that upon my first whiff I immediately heard the skirl of pipes or the overture to Brigadoon playing in my head, but my first thought was, “Cripes, it smells like a bag of wet peat moss….why would anyone want to drink this?” Realizing that I’d already sunk in David’s estimation by mentioning a label of Scotch with a ship on the bottle, I kept that thought to myself.  The first sip was…..well…..anyone reading this that has drunk Laphroaig will undoubtedly remember his or her first sip. The only word I can use to describe it is indescribable. It was certainly wildly different from anything that had previously crossed my 25-year-old palate.

And so, we worked our way through four or five different single malts. The range was amazing: Islay, Highland, Speyside … the romance grew with each new name. I felt as if I were sipping a Sir Walter Scott novel.

But, there was one I kept coming back to as my favorite: The Balvenie. I have no recollection of what bottling it was. I do remember that there seemed to be handwriting on the very-yellowed label, and to my then uneducated palate, it simply tasted the best and happily reinforced the idea that I had now become a Scotch drinker.

As the months went by, we had more tasting sessions, usually accompanied by remembrances of evenings in the Officers’ Mess and the rich traditions practiced there. David mentored me to the point where I could differentiate a single malt from one section of the country from another without looking at the bottle. I know this pleased him … even more than my vow to never mix anything with my single malt…especially 7-Up.

The author at Santa Fe Opera Over the years my opera career took off,  and the Grays eventually moved back to the UK, and, finally, to retirement in Scotland.  It worked out well, as whenever I was singing in Europe, I would make a side trip to see them where tastings would continue. These trips were always more fun when my “winsome wee” wife, Diane, could accompany me.   

Diane with the Grays in ScotlandDavid did not take the word “retirement” very seriously. He had embraced his love of fine craftsmanship and antiques by setting himself up in the business of restoring and selling antique furniture. I had been a wood worker in my youth and was fascinated by what he was doing. Clearly, it left a huge impression on me, because, in 2000, when I decided to leave the opera business, I set up shop restoring antique furniture myself!


The author at Santa Fe Opera



Diane with the Grays in Scotland

As with the single malt Scotch, David proved to be an invaluable tutor on the subject of antiques, despite being 3,000-plus miles away. We kept in close touch, and he seemed to take as much pride in my progress as a conservator as he had in my progress as a connoisseur of malt whisky.

Sadly, cancer claimed him a few years later. I need not say what that felt like. I was unable to make it to the funeral but got a full report from Elisabeth. David had been laid to rest on a hill behind the “wee kirk,” and his interment had been accompanied by a piper from the Black Watch just returned from Iraq. Upon hearing this from Elisabeth, I hung up the phone, poured myself a large dram of The Balvenie, put on a recording of the iconic and haunting piping funeral marches, Flowers of the Forest and Mist Covered Mountains, and sat reflectively at my work bench with a tear in one eye and a smile in the other, very fondly remembering my first sip of that amazing whisky and the man who had done so much to guide me.

But, dear reader, the story is not over.  I continued enjoying The Balvenie and continued restoring antiques. Over time, my appreciation of fine furniture grew to the point where I wanted to start making furniture of my own design, which led to the purchase of a lathe.  One day about four years ago a new muse seemed to settle upon me. I had a whim to make a piece inspired by my childhood in Japan (That’s another story, but will have to wait.). Well, that whim and that piece birthed an artistic awakening that has led to a career in fine craft. I began exhibiting my work at some of the higher-end fine craft shows around the country run by the American Craft Council. So, imagine my happy surprise when I found out that, due to an appreciation of hand craftsmanship, be it in wood or whisky, none other than The Balvenie had teamed up with the ACC and was holding tastings at the shows!

MS at latheMy first happy experiencing of this show/tasting pairing came at the ACC show in San Francisco last summer. Over the course of four days, I sat in on three tastings with the adroitly whisky-ly-educated and enthusiastic Balvenie ambassador, Jonathan Wingo.  I quickly learned two things: First, as helpful as David had been as a tutor, I didn’t really know diddly about why single malt tastes the way it does. Secondly, it became clear why The Balvenie is considered the most hand-crafted (and lovingly so) single malt.  It is simply astounding that any company in this day and age of computer-speed commerce will take the time to really do something right. It’s as astounding as the time that my fellow artisans take to craft their pieces. And, just as in fine craft, taking the time brings forth the quality.

An added benefit to the Balvenie presence at the show was getting to meet Lorne Cousins, the Balvenie ambassador for the western USA and also a world class piper. I told him about my early Scotch and piping experiences with David, and his first question was, “Do you have your pipes here?”  I replied that soon into my opera career I’d had to give them up because I’d found the type of breathing required for piping conflicted with that of full-bore opera singing. He said, “But you’re a craft artist now and no longer on the opera stage….am I right?”  I nodded yes, and he said, “Then why are you not playing the pipes?”Well, suffice it to say that, thanks to Lorne, I have since returned to playing the pipes and, hopefully, applying 25 years’ worth of music-making knowledge to the endeavor. There is a real joy in making music purely for the love of it, and I feel like a portion of my life that had been lacking has returned.

So…happy ending? Wait…still not quite done ……

While exhibiting at the ACC Atlanta show earlier this year, I had a chance to sit in on more tastings with Jonathan. The man’s passion for what he does is contagious, inspiring me to expand the range of my Balvenie collection. (Also, it should probably be added that in order to help sell raffle tickets on behalf of the ACC, I made a totally impromptu (and possibly ill-advised) return to public singing by standing in the Balvenie tasting booth and belting out a Scottish drinking song….preceded by a healthy dram of Balvenie Double Wood, which was imbibed in an attempt to quickly blow off 13 years of accumulated dust from my vocal cords.)

So, other than practicing my piping, and sipping and enjoying my growing collection of single malts, I thought my connection with The Balvenie were over until I could attend more tastings.

Hardly!  It seems they are just getting started.

Imagine my amazement when last month an email popped into my inbox one afternoon telling me that my work had been chosen by Dario Franchitti to be part of the Balvenie Rare Craft Tour for the autumn of 2014. My very first thought was, “Wouldn’t David be thrilled!”  Somehow I’m sure he knows.



Balvenie Tea Set




The Journey of the “Big Ass” Candlesticks

by Michael on September 15, 2014


Last summer, I was invited to exhibit at the American Craft Council show in San Francisco. I was very excited at the prospect, as my wife had never been to that fair city, and I had not been there since 1959, when my family and I had boarded a ship to sail across the Pacific to our new home in Japan.  I was even more excited when several of my pieces were selected for an exhibition at a pre-show event at Room & Board.  To top it all off, a panel discussion about the marriage of craft and design was to be led by HGTV’s design guru, Vern Yip.

 A room setting in the store was to be accessorized with my pieces, and I was instructed to select ones that would “make a statement.” Well, anyone who knows my work would probably say that it makes a statement even with the lights turned out. Inspired by my childhood in Japan, many of my pieces tend to be red. Allow me to repeat, my work tends to be RED! In one case in particular, not only is it red, it is BIG. That case would be my Meiji Ceremonial Candlesticks, which have been dubbed by Pamela Diamond of the ACC as “The Big Ass Candlesticks.” After all, they stand a full 34” tall without candles.

                      12-008 reshoot                          MS @ RB

The pieces had been arranged at Room and Board by a very talented designer named Joe Darling (who was, in fact, darling).  As my wife, Diane, and I walked in, we began to hear the buzz:  “Vern loves your candlesticks.” I was tickled. The ante was quickly upped with the news:  “I think Vern wants to buy your candlesticks.” Needless to say, I was beyond tickled.

            IMG_5454              Vern Yip Beachhouse

A little while later I had an opportunity to meet and talk with Vern. You might wonder what an artist talks about with a famous designer. Color, texture, surfaces?  Did we compare notes on his being born in Hong Kong and my growing up in Japan? No …. we talked about kids. Of all the things I’d learned about Vern, the fact that he and his partner, Craig, have two gorgeous children, and that Vern is a UNICEF Ambassador were the facets of his life that interested and impressed me the most. Seeing the way his face lit up when he talked about kids, especially his own, sold me on this man for life. 

But, back to the candlesticks. Vern was very complimentary about them, as he is a big proponent of handmade fine craft. Indeed, he bought them for his own home, but agreed to leave them in my booth for the duration of the ACC show, after which we would ship them to him. Super! Happy ending.

 Well…not quite yet.

The candlesticks graced our booth for the next three days and received a lot of attention. The red dot indicating that they were sold prompted many raised eyebrows.  The fact that they’d been sold to Vern Yip elicited lots of ooh’s, ah’s, and dropped jaws.

The show ended on Sunday evening, and we packed up our pieces to be shipped back to NYC, all except the candlesticks. Those we took back to our hotel room to be shipped the next day.  Now, when I say we took them back to our hotel room, I should clarify that we (we being I) carried them. We could not find a cab, and there were no direct buses. I don’t think I’d ever realized just how BIG the “Big Ass Candlesticks” were until I schlepped them the full mile, uphill (all of San Francisco is uphill…..even the downhill seems like uphill) back to the room. We attracted a lot of attention on the trek. Walking past one bar, a young lady came out, practically accosted me, and asked what she’d “have to do” to own a set of candlesticks like those. (I’m not making this up.) I was tickled. Diane was not.

 The next morning we looked in the phone book (yes, we should have Googled, but the wifi in the hotel worked as if it were going uphill.) and found a shipper, who shall remain nameless, that we could get to by mass transit.  So, I again shouldered the candlesticks, and we boarded a bus.  We arrived at the stop closest to the store and walked the rest of the way. Yes, it was uphill.

Vern's BACS on the Bus

Upon arrival at the “store,” we were greeted by a very sweet, somewhat elderly woman who assured us that we’d come to the right place, as they “did everything the old-fashioned way to make sure it was done right.” This gave me a bit of a queasy, prescient feeling, but we carried on. As they didn’t have a card reader, she wrote down my credit card number on a paper bill of lading with carbon copies. She read the number back to me, and it seemed fine. Maybe old-fashioned was OK.  She took our home phone number, as it is the number associated with the credit card, and Vern’s phone number, just in case. She assured us the boxes would be expertly packed for the cross-country trip, so we said our goodbyes and headed off, uphill, to explore San Francisco.

We had a wonderful day seeing the sights and actually relaxing. After all, we’d had a great show, made a lot of great contacts, and had even sold a set of candlesticks to Vern Yip! All was right with the world.

We decided to end our day as tourists inside Grace Cathedral, knowing that the windows would be glorious with the setting sun shining through them.  Inside the cathedral there is a labyrinth inset in the floor, which can be walked as a means of meditative prayer. A very dear friend of mine was ill at the time, so I decided to walk the labyrinth bearing her in mind and heart. I got about half-way through when I suddenly felt a buzzing sensation. I thought, “Wow, this must really be working.”  It took me a moment to realize that this was not a sign from Heaven but, instead, my new cellular phone which I had inadvertently set to vibrate. I glanced at the number and, not recognizing it, silently uttered some expletives, then turned the phone off to return to my meditation.  I began the labyrinth again and had just about achieved a quasi-meditative state when Diane’s phone not only vibrated, but began to ring … loudly … echoing throughout the cathedral. She bolted for the door, while I voiced a few additional expletives completely inappropriate for the surroundings.

She very quickly stuck her head back inside the door, frantically motioning for me to come to her and began silently mouthing words…..something about a turn and a ship. What? I was all at sea as to what she was trying to tell me. She mouthed it again. I finally got it: VERN YIP!!! WHAT??????!!!!!

My fantasy had been that the next time I heard Vern’s voice he’d be saying, “My colleagues just love these candlesticks….can you make 50 sets?” Instead, it was, “Hi, this is Vern Yip. I bought a set of candlesticks from you the other day, and the shipper just called to say your credit card is no good.” Have you ever heard the expression, “My blood froze in my veins.”? Now I know exactly what that means.

To make a long story short (well, sort of short), in the process of transcribing the old-fashioned way, Madame at the shipping store had managed to transpose two of the numbers on my credit card. Unable to reach us at our home number, she’d called Vern!  Great way to make a good business impression, eh? We called the store, and, thankfully, someone a tad less vintage answered. She knew right away who we were, corrected the credit card number, and sent the candlesticks on their way.  Thankfully, they arrived safe and sound a few days later, and now have a new home at Vern’s beach house. 

We were just getting past the drama of the whole thing when we finally arrived back home to find the outdated message on our phone machine from the antique shipping woman telling us that we’d given her the wrong credit card number. I was tempted to return her call and tell her to take a hike….uphill!

Diary of a (Mad) Craft Show Artist – Finale

by Michael on September 8, 2014

September 8, 2014 – Back at Base

And so, dear reader, I am happy to report that the Invasion of Evanston was a complete and unmitigated success. Fine craft artists from all over America stormed the beaches of Lake Michigan and flooded the indoor tennis courts of Northwestern University with beauty and achingly-fine craftsmanship. Vini, vidi, vici.

The show itself was superbly organized and ran smoothly from beginning to end.  Hearty kudos to The Auxiliary of NorthShore University HealthSystem and all those on the ground who assisted us.  

There are several ways of judging one’s personal success at a show such as ACE, especially on the debut outing. Regardless of income, commissions, or press, one must consider the effect one’s work has had on individual viewers.

 A single incident made me feel as if the show had been a total success: an elderly gentleman came into the booth and slowly, measuredly, with his hands clasped behind his back, worked his way around the tables. He tilted his head back so he could see through his bifocals, carefully examined each piece, and read each description card. As other people came in, he would stand to the side a bit so that they, too, could look at certain pieces, but he would always find his way back to the work he’d been viewing and pick up his inspection journey from there. I believe this gent may have been in the booth a full half-hour, yet never said a word.

He eventually viewed the last piece, turned to me, and, with a relaxed but genuine smile, said, “Wonderful, just wonderful.” He started to walk away, but then turned his head to me, looked me straight in the eye, and said, “Thank you.”

I knew in a flash that whether or not I sold another piece, my show had been a triumph. In a very real moment of déjà vu, I was transported back to a concert I’d sung in 1985 and the memories of another gentleman in that audience.  I relayed that experience in an essay I wrote about why I make, a portion of which I’d like to share with you here:

I was singing a pops concert once when I noticed a man sitting in one of the front rows holding his hat in his lap. He was smiling and tapping on the sides of the hat in time with the music. I realized, in a flash, that that man would go home from the theater happier than when he’d arrived, and that what I was doing would make a difference in his life, even if only for that evening. I feel I am doing the same thing now with decorative arts, but, hopefully, the tangible nature of the objects I create will make the happiness last a bit longer than one evening.

It is these sorts of memories that sustain me in the long and solitary hours of making.   To read the full essay, click here. 

And so, I am already back to work, preparing to return to Chicago for the SOFA show in November, then on to the Society of Arts and Crafts’ CraftBoston show in December. My comrades and I will again be there on the front lines fighting ugliness and mediocrity, and, as always, we will not cease in our efforts until we can declare total victory.



August 21, 2014 – D-Day Evening

ACE Elixir


Provisions have arrived to sustain both the front line troops (a.k.a. artists) and those reviewing the troops and their wares, i.e., donors, patrons and invited guests. The provisions are taking on many forms including succulent hangar steak, fabulous Asian fare, and finely-crafted desserts.  But the hit of the night has been the ACE Elixir, a concoction of vodka, ginger-infused lemonade, and a splash of something mysterious, served up and with a twist.  It is proving to be as well-crafted and tasteful as everything else at this show.

ACE Elixir


August 21, 2014:  D-Day

We are safely ashore. A roomful of cardboard boxes, crates, empty booths and disheveled artists has morphed into a space filled with extreme beauty and elegant fine craftsmanship. My comrades and I are prepared to meet our discerning public.  The doors have opened, the music has begun, and, most importantly, hors d’oeuvres are now being passed.  Stand by for updates from the front lines.

ACE Booth - before croppedACE Booth cropped

ACE Booth – Before & After


August 20, 2014 – D minus 2 – En route

ACE Subaru - cropped

Well, for those of you following this saga (melodrama), as you will surmise from the attached photo, we decided to drive to The American Craft Exposition in Evanston. Our faithful little Subaru has whisked us through beautiful mid-western farmland filled with cattle and corn.  We’ve also had ample time for conversation, and my wife can assure you that all of the bull and corn is not in the roadside fields.  The Chicago skyline is now in sight, so I must sign off and prepare to join my comrades as we seek to invade Evanston with beauty.




Diary of a (Mad) Craft Show Artist

by Michael on July 20, 2014

10 July, 2014 – D minus 42

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Normandy invasion, officially known as Operation Overlord, but popularly known as D-Day. On June 6th, 1944, the long-awaited offensive began in what may well have been the most meticulously planned and well thought out operation in history. There were, of course, some glitches, mistakes and moments of abject terror; but, in the end, with luck and a lot of prayer added to the supply list, the invasion succeeded.

The ‘D’ in D-Day simply stood for Day, meaning the day of the actual landings. The days leading up to D-Day were numbered in descending order…hence, June 1st was D minus 5.  In the decades that have followed, the term “D-Day” has become synonymous with any massive operation including lots of moving parts, logistical challenges, and larger-than-life personalities.

And so, I declare today to be D Minus 42…..42 days until artists from all over the USA invade Evanston, Illinois, creating a barrage of beauty and a hail of fine craftsmanship as they land on the shores of Lake Michigan….or, actually, the parking lot.

Like Gen. Eisenhower, I, for one, can say that I have planned meticulously, thought out and created what I hope are excellent examples of fine craft, and predict that the remaining six weeks before the ACE show will be flawless, with nary a tremor of a nervous hand or a voice raised in frustration. There will be no last minute agita! 


OK…so maybe a little anxiety may creep in. A tad, at most.

Yeah….uh huh.

Fact is, it’s an understatement to say that a lot goes into preparing for, getting to, setting up and existing at a fine craft show for a long weekend. And, if for some reason, things are not going well, the weekend can be excruciatingly long and the trip home, even longer.

For most seasoned show artists, the preparation and set-up for a show are pretty similar from one venue to another. One variable, however, is the method of getting one’s self and one’s art to the event.  Depending on the distance from home, the choice is whether to drive or to ship the art work to the show site.  As we live in NYC, we usually drive to shows in Philly, Boston, Baltimore and D.C.  Packing the tables, lighting, chairs, suitcases, etc., etc., etc., (and, oh yes, the art!), into, and onto, a Subaru is always a challenge which must be undertaken with the greatest care, especially with the items in the car top carrier. And, of course, an artist must pack the top of the car with especial attention to aesthetics. A clean and streamlined silhouette is a must; the Beverly Hillbillies look should be avoided at all costs.

Shipping the art to the show, on the other hand, allows one a comfortable two-week period to relax before a show. That would normally be the most hectic period of preparation, when one wishes one were two. But, if the pieces have been shipped off, they can no longer be worked on, said artist need not run around tearing his hair out (assuming he is not bald already), finding, and re-finding, things that need touching up. It really pays not to be OCD at times like these. Of course, during this fortnight, the term carry-on baggage is oft invoked and, inevitably, a piece that didn’t make it onto the truck headed West, finds itself traveling in the overhead compartment of an airplane, hopefully in an upright and locked position.

So, the clock is ticking, and we have not yet decided if we are driving or shipping to Evanston. It’s a choice between emptying the wallet for shipping, or sitting on the wallet for two days of driving through verdant and bucolic mid-west countryside.  (I know which one sounds more aesthetically pleasing.)

Regardless of mode of transport, I can assure you, dear reader, that the time remaining, inspired by Operation Overlord, will be “the most meticulously planned and well thought out operation in history.”  

Yeah.  Sure.

(Actually, if past show preps are any indication, it will be more like Operation OhMyLord!”)

For more information on ACE 2014, click here.

Creating Texture Using Metal Leaf

by Michael on March 27, 2014

An article I wrote for Woodturning Magazine (UK) on creating texture using metal leaf. You can read the full article, which appeared in the March, 2014 issue, here.

Creating Texture Using Paint Part 2

by Michael on February 27, 2014

The second of two articles I wrote for Woodturning Magazine (UK) on creating texture using paint. You can read the full article, which appeared in the February, 2014 issue, here.

Creating Texture Using Paint I – Ginko Bowl

by Michael on January 27, 2014

The first of two articles I wrote for Woodturning Magazine (UK) on creating texture using paint. You can read the first, which appeared in the January, 2014 issue, here.

Creating “Tea in the Afterglow”

by Michael on December 27, 2013

An article I wrote for the December 2013 issue of Woodturning Magazine (UK) which details the making of “Tea in the Afterglow.” Read the full article here.

Beauty in Boston (Strong)

by Michael on May 3, 2013

“I just need to see beautiful things.”

So said a lady as she came through the door of CraftBoston on Saturday, April 20. The show was to have opened the day before, but the manhunt for the Marathon bombers was in full swing, and the city was basically shut down. Public transport wasn’t running, and the populace was told to stay indoors. By Saturday, after living through the terror of the bombing, the shootings, and the capture, people were ready to get out and begin healing their wounded spirits. The term “Boston Strong” had been coined, and many of Boston’s strong chose the beauty of CraftBoston as their balm.

For me, there was no better exemplar of Boston Strong than Nicole Aquillano, the talented ceramist with a Norman Rockwell smile who occupied the booth next to us. Nicole had run this year’s marathon in the admirable time of 3:30, and, afterward, had gone back to her studio to make pottery, only to find out later that for others, there was no finish.

There were a lot of very colorful and exuberant pieces at the show, but in Nicole’s booth, one found a gentle calm. Her artist’s statement says that she is influenced by her “longing to return to the comfort and stability of home.” People needed that kind of comfort and stability, as well as beauty, after the week they’d endured, and no one came away from Nicole’s booth without a smile on his or her face. There is a simple, reflective beauty to her work and its subject matter. She draws inspiration from the house she grew up in, which is pictured on many of her pieces: a very all-American-looking Victorian home with a light glowing in the window.  I think people found that light to be a grounding and healing thing after the events of the week they’d had.

I believe that a lot of healing had taken place by the closing on Sunday. The immersion in beautiful objects and the camaraderie of other beauty-seeking people had done its work. In an earlier blog post on the American Craft Council website I wrote: I feel that sending beautiful objects out into the world is the first line of defense against the ugliness, mediocrity, and transience that are increasingly so pervasive in our world. I wish I could say that beautiful objects can also be a defense against terrorism, but I am not quite that Pollyanna-ish.  However, I have now seen proof that beauty can at least help to heal the wounds left in its wake.

To see the full posting on the American Craft Council website May 3, 2013, click here.

From Devastation, Beauty Will Rise

by Michael on January 1, 2013

It’s hard for most people to believe, but besides raccoons and possums, we also have a family of hawks living here within view of the Empire State Building in Sunnyside Gardens, New York City. But at the moment, the hawks are homeless.

It’s now been two full months since the fury of Hurricane Sandy swept through our little neighborhood… and the neighborhoods and lives of so many others. Even though our little haven was spared the utter devastation of places like Breezy Point, the Rockaways, and areas of Staten Island and the Jersey Shore, we, nevertheless, had an up-close and personal view of what hurricane-force winds can do.

I went out the morning after the main event to take some pictures, and, for once, the word overwhelming was not an exaggeration. But as I began to narrow the scope of what I was seeing by focusing through the camera lens, a feeling of perseverance and determination began to creep into my overwhelmed brain. Even though the car I was looking at was totally smashed, the ginkgo leaf stuck to its window seemed to say, “something good can come of this.”

The physical damage has been widely reported, but there is a whole other level of “aesthetic damage” that has not yet been fully comprehended. Our friends Deb and Carlos lost a massive and magnificent silver maple that they referred to as “their child.” A poet might have called it a fine example of arboreal splendor. It had been home to the aforementioned family of hawks, and many wonderful evening meals had been shared by neighbors under its sheltering canopy. Thankfully, no one was injured in the fall of the tree, but for Deb and Carlos, the emotional damage was great. She still cannot speak of it without crying.

In the weeks after the storm, I began bringing in wood from the downed trees to use in future projects. I was unloading some large chunks of maple when my UPS man, who hails from Jamaica, said, “Ah…bringing in firewood.” I said, “No, these blocks will all be turned into bowls.” He responded with one of those voices for the ages, “Ya see… everyone else sees a disahstah, but you see a blessin’, mon.” Leave it to a man who claimed to know nothing of art to be able to voice exactly what I’d been thinking.

I try my best to use found wood for my work. In most cases it’s simply “botanical road kill” cut by the highway department. I try to get to it before it goes into the chipper, and its potential for beauty is lost forever. There’s usually no spectacular story to go with it. But this wood from Sandy has an entirely different feeling to it. There’s maybe a subliminal malevolence to it because of the pain and suffering associated with the storm. But, maybe that malevolence can be replaced with the benevolence of turning each chunk into something beautiful and gifting those pieces to my neighbors who lost some of Sunnyside Gardens’ oldest and most beautiful specimens. Perhaps they will find a beauty in them that will help ease the pain.

The healing and rebuilding has begun for everyone. Word is that the hawks have already found a new tree.

As published on the American Craft Council web-site.